My mother had a sore neck. Probably from Pilates class, she thought. So she went to her doctor, who ordered an X-ray. Upon reviewing the X-ray, her doctor ordered an MRI for a week later.
My mother asked her doctor why he was ordering more tests. Did he see evidence of osteoporosis? Arthritis? A slipped disc?
Without even making eye contact with her, Mom’s doctor said, “Could be metastatic cancer.” Then promptly left the room.
Unsurprisingly, my phone rang next. It was my mother, who has read my book Mind Over Medicine, asking me to help calm her nervous system.
The Amygdala As Sentry
Here’s what was happening in my mother’s brain when her doctor said the words “metastatic cancer” without offering any comfort.
Mom was married to my father, a radiologist whose job it was to read X-rays, identify any potential abnormalities, and order follow up testing if anything appeared even remotely suspicious. So her thinking, rational forebrain reasoned, “It’s probably nothing and the doctor is just covering his butt by ordering a follow up scan.”
But her amygdala, the scaredy-cat part of her primordial limbic brain, only hears, “METASTATIC CANCER! A CERTAIN DEATH SENTENCE!”
Now being an amygdala is sort of like being one of those meerkat sentries that stands on the top of the mound, surveying the environment for danger in order to protect the whole clan of meerkats. The amygdala’s primary job is to be on the lookout for danger and sound the alarm when it discovers a threat. When it does, it triggers a whole cascade of hormonal activity, and the hormones that get secreted bathe every cell in the body.
From time to time, pain grips Anna’s belly so severely that she has to excuse herself, hide in the bathroom, double over on the toilet, and dab herself with lavender oil to try to keep from puking. The first time it happened, she called her best friend, who took her to the emergency room, where they poked, prodded, scanned, and examined Anna, only to dose her up with morphine, shrug their shoulders, and send her home with Vicodin and a referral to a gastroenterologist.
But then it happened a few days later. So Anna made an appointment with the gastroenterologist, who sticks a scope up Anna’s butt and slaps her with the label of irritable bowel syndrome. Anna tries a few medications, as well as some dietary changes, but the pain actually gets worse. When she tells this to her gastroenterologist, the doctor refers her to a gynecologist, who performs laparascopic surgery on her and diagnoses her with endometriosis. The gynecologist recommends a drug called Lupron, which puts 32 year old Anna into temporary menopause, but when Anna tries the Lupron, her hot flashes, insomnia, vaginal dryness, and night sweats are so severe, she decides the belly pain is less traumatic than the menopausal symptoms, so she stops the Lupron.
Procedures… And More Procedures
Because the first dose of Lupron hadn’t helped her symptoms, her gynecologist suggests she visit a urologist, so Anna complies. The urologist performs yet another procedure, putting a camera into Anna’s bladder. The urologist detects some worrisome abnormalities and diagnoses her with interstitial cystitis. More drugs are prescribed, as more dietary adjustments are made.
The next week, Anna is doubled over on the toilet, again, soaking herself in lavender oil at least twice a day.
Yet nobody ever talks to her about the fact that her pain only appears when her Devil Wears Prada boss storms down the hall with one of those, “How dare you fail me like this - again?” grimaces on her face.
You may know that your body is brilliantly equipped with natural self-repair mechanisms that repair broken proteins, kill cancer cells, fight infections, retard aging, and generally keep your body healthy. But did you know that these self-repair mechanisms can be flipped on - or off - with the power of thoughts, beliefs, and feelings that originate in the mind?
It’s not New Age hocus pocus. It’s simple physiology! Here’s how it happens for the nerds among you who, like me, like to understand how things in the body work.
The Stress Response Vs. Relaxation Response
Your nervous system operates in two different states - the “fight-or-flight” stress response, when the sympathetic nervous system dominates, and the relaxation response, when the parasympathetic nervous system is in charge. But here’s the kicker- your body’s natural self-repair mechanisms only activate when your body is in a relaxation response!
The average person experiences 50 stress responses per day, and every time you have a fearful thought or a pessimistic belief or a resentful feeling, you trigger stress responses that fill the body with poisonous stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. But when you have an optimistic belief or a loving thought or a feeling of compassion, you activate relaxation responses, and the body can then do what it does best - heal itself.
Balancing The Nervous System
How can you help your body heal itself? It’s all about reducing stress responses and adding in relaxation responses. Reducing your stress requires taking a good look at your life to determine whether there are any areas where you’re living out of alignment with your truth and personal integrity. Maybe you’re in a soul-sucking job or a toxic relationship, or maybe it’s time to finally forgive your father or pursue a dream. While reducing stress responses can require some radical actions, activating relaxation responses can be easy and pleasurable.
Here are a few scientifically-proven relaxation response activators:
As a health-conscious person, you’re already in the loop about the importance of eating your veggies, skipping the booze, cigarettes, and fake foods, daily exercise, plenty of zzzzz’s, and regular check-ups. But as a physician fascinated by why some health nuts still suffer from chronic illness, I dug deep into the medical literature to study what else really makes us healthy - and what predisposes us to illness.
What I found shocked me. What I discovered was certainly never introduced to me in medical school. As I wrote about in my upcoming book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself and as discussed in my latest TEDx talk, the scientific data proves that there are ten key habits that lead to optimal health. (I’ll bet your doctor never wrote these on a prescription pad!)
Alleviate loneliness. The Italian immigrants of Roseto, Pennsylvania ate meatballs fried in lard, gorged on pasta, and smoked, but they had half the risk of heart disease as the rest of the country. Why? Researchers concluded that it was because they lived communally, celebrated regularly, and had a huge network of friends. Dinner party, anyone?
Couple up. A UCLA study reviewed census data and found that those who never marry are 58% more likely to die at a young age than those who exchange vows. But only healthy marriages count if you’re seeking optimal health. Studies show that, when it comes to health, you’re better off alone than stuck in a toxic relationship.
Get it on. Those with healthy, happy sex lives live longer, have a lower risk of heart disease and stroke, get less breast cancer, bolster their immune systems, sleep better, appear more youthful, enjoy improved fitness, have enhanced fertility, get relief from chronic pain, experience fewer migraines, suffer from less depression, and enjoy an improved quality of life.
Engage in work you love. Those stuck in soul-sucking jobs are at greater risk for sudden death. In Japan, they call it “karoshi” - death by overwork. But it’s not just the Japanese who are at risk. Studies suggest Americans are at even greater risk of sudden death from heart disease and stroke due to overwork. If work is stressing you out, you may be shortening your life. However, when you’ve found your calling and are doing what you love, your nervous system relaxes, and this flips on your body’s natural self-healing mechanisms.